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Small, rural and miles from the inner city. So what went wrong?

Abbey Farm Middle School, inching towards recovery since inspectors branded it failing two years ago, was just yards from the finishing line when the Government pronounced its progress too slow, its head said yesterday.

The 140-pupil school, in the heart of a deprived council estate in Thetford, Norfolk, is among 18 failing schools singled out by ministers as doing too little to improve despite months under emergency measures.

Its inclusion shocked officials at the Norfolk Local Education Authority, and the head teacher, Dominic Cragoe, who was told by government inspectors on their last visit that Abbey Farm could expect to be off the failing list next term.

Where severe criticisms over behaviour and teaching standards two years ago had been entirely justified, yesterday's announcement was "farcical", Mr Cragoe said. "We drew up a detailed action plan, kept to it and reviewed it each year, and we have made good progress. We were given to believe we would soon get the all-clear, so why then publicly denounce the school?"

The head insists he has never shrunk from confronting the school's shortcomings. Immediately after arriving in early 1994, he called in the inspection agency, Ofsted, and accepted the expected verdict of failure. Standards of achievement were below expected levels in every subject but French, curriculum planning was weak and behaviour was poor among significant numbers of pupils, inspectors said.

"We were like the Ridings was last year," the head said. "We had kids running out of lessons or out of school, or making V-signs at staff." A new discipline policy swiftly brought behaviour under control, and weak staff were given extra training to improve planning and teaching quality.

Out of 12 teaching staff in post at the time of the inspection, only four now remain. The rest have been replaced with highly-experienced teachers. A literacy programme developed by the new deputy head has seen pupils make dramatic progress, and the proportion of satisfactory lessons has risen from 20 per cent to 60 per cent since inspections.

"The real issue is this school had probably the weakest Ofsted report in the country and you can't simply say every school has to be out of special measures in two years," said Mr Cragoe. "There are many in the race to improve who might meet that target, but we really had our legs tied together."

Staff, he predicts, will feel battered by the school's latest public humiliation and raising morale will be "an enormous task". Pupils, too, must come to terms with a fresh failing label, though parents have remained consistently loyal during the school's troubles.

Having heard of Abbey Farm's inclusion on Labour's list only at 11.30am yesterday, Mr Cragoe is still not sure what the Government's new teams of experts will do, or how they can offer extra support not already provided by the Authority and inspectors.

Roll call of shame

Across the country, 44.5 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grade A-C.

Average aggregate Key Stage 2 score was 170.

Earl Marshal School, Sheffield: 8 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grade GCSEs.

Ashburton High, Croydon: 18 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grade.

Ingram High, Croydon: 22 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grades.

Dulwich High for Boys, Southwark: 9 per cent of pupils gained five A- C grades.

Mostyn Gardens Primary, Lambeth: Key Stage 2 tests aggegate score:107.

South Benwell Primary, Newcastle: Key Stage 2 tests aggregate score: 50.

Southfields GM School, Gravesend, Kent: 9 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grade.

St Mary of the Angels, Westminster: Key Stage 2 tests aggregate score:130.

Kelsey Park GM School, Bromley: 27 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grades.

Abbey Farm Middle School, Thetford, Norfolk.

Our Lady of Fatima GM School, Liverpool: 7 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grade.

Rams Episcopal Primary School, Hackney: Key Stage 2 tests aggregate score: 93.

Morningside Primary, Hackney: Key Stage 2 tests aggregate score: 34.

Upbury Manor GM School, Gillingham, Kent: 7 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grades.

Blakelaw School, Newcastle upon Tyne: 10 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grades.

Lea Green Special School, Waltham Forest.

Handsworth Wood Boys' School, Birmingham: 11 per cent of pupils gained five A-C grades.

Lillian Bayliss School, Lambeth: 17 per cent of pupils gained five A- C grades.